China’s gay community scored a victory after a massively popular social media platform reversed a ban on “homosexual” content, but challenges remain in a country where LGBT culture remains taboo in the entertainment industry.
Gay-themed films struggle to make it into movie theatres, same-sex relationships are banned from television screens and gay content is forbidden on online streaming platforms.
But the latest censorship move caused a public backlash that prompted Sina Weibo, a Twitter-like platform with 400 million active monthly users, to make a surprising about-face.
The popular microblogging platform had abruptly announced last week that it was removing “illegal content” including “videos with pornographic implications, promoting violence or (related to) homosexuality”.
The move triggered an #IamGay campaign on the platform, with many calling for a boycott. Even the Communist Party mouthpiece, the People’s Daily, posted an essay on Weibo promoting LGBT acceptance, though it cautioned that gays were not immune to censorship of porn and violence.
“This is an incremental victory and quite a positive signal, but I also think Sina was mostly worried about its stock tanking,” said Xiao Tie, director of the Beijing LGBT Center.
“They haven’t yet deleted the original notice and there’s been no apology, so for us, it’s still not really over — there are many challenges we still face,” she added.
Raymond Phang, co-founder of Shanghai Pride, explained that people were riled by the insensitive language of Weibo’s notice.
“It’s good to clear up inappropriate material that’s violent or pornographic, but the words that they used pointed to a specific community, to people rather than content. It’s really disappointing coming from such a big platform,” he said.
Phang said gay content bans had previously come directly from the authorities, making it difficult to protest.
“Sina is a listed company, so at least we had channels to make our voice heard, like contacting customer service. But in the past, what could we do? Who’s going to write to the government? Which mailbox, which bureau?” he said, laughing.
But a struggle continues to put homosexual content in mainstream culture.
In 2016, government censors banned gay characters on television, with guidelines decreeing: “No television drama shall show abnormal sexual relationships and behaviours, such as incest, same-sex relationships, sexual perversion, sexual assault, sexual abuse, sexual violence, and so on.”
Last year, authorities banned gay content from all online streaming platforms.
Oscar-winning “Call Me by Your Name”, the story of a summer romance between two young men in Italy, was pulled from the Beijing International Film Festival last month.
But after a two-year delay, Chinese theatres on Friday finally released “Looking for Rohmer”, a film about a secret homosexual relationship between Chinese and French lovers that has been hailed as the country’s first gay movie.
Yet the film appeared to be cut beyond recognition, to the point that it is nearly impossible to discern any romance between the two main characters, who never kiss and hardly even hold hands.
Their love was expressed indirectly, through a fleeting, imagined performance of a scene from a Tibetan opera in which the two dance the parts of a star-crossed couple.
The website of the International Chinese Film Festival in Sydney lists the film’s running time as two hours, but the version screened in China lasts only 83 minutes.
On Tuesday evening, only eight people had pre-purchased tickets for any screenings in central Beijing theatres.
LGBT rights face other challenges in China.
A lack of comprehensive sex education leaves many completely uninformed about LGBT issues, particularly given deeply embedded traditional values and pressures to get married and have children.
It also has no anti-discrimination law for gender identity and sexual orientation.
China only decriminalised homosexuality in 1997, and withdrew it from its list of mental illnesses in 2001.
Clinics throughout the country are still known to offer “cures” for being gay involving electroshocks, confinement and chemical castration.
Though neighbouring Taiwan is home to vibrant gay pride parades, such festivals are limited to cultural activities or social events in the mainland, where mass mobilisations of any kind are seen as potential threats to social stability.
Same-sex marriage remains illegal. A court in Hunan refused to grant two men the right to marry in 2016, in China’s first-ever lawsuit on the issue.
But the LGBT community has made inroads in other cases.
A court in the southwestern province of Guizhou ruled last year that a transgender man had been illegally fired from his workplace in China’s first-ever unfair dismissal case.
And last summer, a court in central China ordered a psychiatric hospital to compensate and apologise to a gay man forced to undergo conversion therapy, two years after another tribunal condemned a different clinic offering the same kind of “cure” in the southwestern metropolis of Chongqing.